I’m happy that two of my most important advocacies, the investigation and prosecution of extralegal killings and the reform of the Witness Protection Program, figured in President Noynoy Aquino’s first State-of-the-Nation Address. While I would have preferred an express mention of the Maguindanao massacre in the first Sona since the massacre took place, and specific promises that he had for the victims of the country’s worse massacre ever, either in terms of reparations to the victims who were killed by state agents or a specific time frame within which to finish the prosecution of the case; still, P-Noy did promise in general terms that “killers would be prosecuted” under his administration. It was good that while he acknowledged that the killings continue until today, the difference is that in the three weeks that he has been in office, half of the extralegal killings that welcomed his administration had been investigated and now being prosecuted in court. Contrast this with the almost 1,000 killings under nine years of the Arroyo regime with only about three convictions, all of them involving only gun men, and none of the masterminds.
Under international law, the duty of civilian presidents is to prevent the loss of the right to life and in default of this, the further obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators thereof. Civilian heads of state will in fact incur criminal liability if they fail in this duty to investigate and prosecute. How, in turn, is this duty to investigate triggered? For military commanders, it is if it is shown that a commander in control of his subordinates had knowledge of the commission of the crimes or should have known about the same had he not turned a blind eye to the crimes. Civilian presidents have a similar duty, except that it must be shown that they actually knew that the crimes were actually happening and did nothing to prevent or investigate them. This duty to investigate is triggered , among others, by news reports and reports of human rights organizations. While these reports are hearsay insofar as the truthfulness of their contents are concerned, they are, however, sufficient basis to trigger the duty to investigate.
The President also promised reforms in the Witness Protection Program.
This is vindication of sorts since until today, government prosecutors, in addition to former Secretary of Justice Alberto Agra, have not acknowledged that “Jessie”, the murdered eye witness to the Maguindanao massacre, should have not died if only those charged with the implementation of the WPP bothered to listen to what he had to say. At the very least, the President’s promise to reform the WPP is evidence that the witness “Jessie” probably did not die in vain. Hopefully, he will heed the recommendations of professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extralegal Killings, to separate the WPP from the National Prosecution Service to insulate the program from the biases of government prosecutors. It is further hoped that these much-needed reforms in the WPP would finally accept how difficult it is for witnesses to gruesome crimes perpetrated by state agents to trust the WPP. Maybe, the Supreme Court, as an immediate remedial measure to address this issue of mistrust, should accredit soonest the list of organizations that can provide private sanctuaries.
I am happy that the President also repeated his promise to curtail graft and corruption in government. It was good that he singled out his marching orders for the Department of Justice and the Bureaus of Customs and Internal Revenues to file new cases against big-time smugglers and tax cheats on a weekly basis. I thought though that the President should have mentioned more specific means of how his administration would deal with the problems of corruption beyond mentioning the Truth Commission anew and promising to issue the Executive Order detailing the workings of the commission within the week. Perhaps though, he should have been more clear on how he intends to deal with the biggest obstacle to the fight against corruption: Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. With the administration Liberal Party now a Juggernaut in the House of Representatives, I am sure that his party mates were more than eager to find out how he intended to deal with the problem that is the Ombudsman. I would also have liked to hear the basics, that is, he will send thieves in government, including the Arroyos and their cohorts to jail. But maybe he thought mentioning this would be a superfluity given his repeated promises of “no reconciliation without justice” during the campaign. We hope this is in fact the case.
I’m not sure I liked Aquino’s having singled out the excesses of the board of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, though. Having had the opportunity, albeit all so briefly, to act as corporate secretary of a government-owned and -controlled corporation once, I do not find the P2 million per annum compensation for board members particularly scandalous if only because almost all of GOCCs of the same size as the MWSS probably have the same levels of compensation. I’m sure this sum is either the same or even bigger in the boards of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp., Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Government Service Insurance System, Social Security System, PNOC-Energy Development Corporation, Development Bank of the Philippines, Land Bank of the Philippines, to name only a few. The issue should not have been solely focused on the remuneration of the MWSS Board. The President should have raised how much all board members of GOCCs should make.
Anent the hoard of rice stocks that the National Food Authority imported, the President remained quiet on what made these importations even more reprehensible. That hat is, in addition to rotting rice stocks and overpriced warehouses, there is the greed of those who obviously made money out of these importations. To quote Jun Lozada, “they failed to moderate their greed.”
On his legislative agenda, I hope the anti-trust bill is finally enacted into law. There has been a pending anti-draft law in Congress since the 8th Congress in 1988. I should know since I drafted one such version of the draft bills which I pattered after the American anti-trust law. It has since gathered dust for the past 25 years despite the fact that we need the law badly, what with the proliferation today of monopolies and oligopolies which render free competition in the market illusory.
The call to re-examine our codified laws was also welcomed particularly by the University of the Philippines College of Law community. Individual members of the faculty have been engaged in the re-examination of these codes ranging from the Revised Penal Code, to a proposed Code of Commercial Laws, an amended Environmental Code, and even amendments to the Family Code and other laws affecting persons and family relations.
By and large, the President stuck to a tried-and-tested formula in speech writing: use short sentences that are direct to the point. Still, where it was lacking was the lack of an action plan. Maybe that will come as soon as the respective heads of the executive departments have finalized their action plans.